Losing streaks, winning teams

With the 2010 San Diego Padres going from contender to pretender in the blink of a proverbial eye thanks to their recent 10-game losing skid, I got to wondering whether other good teams had experienced similar slides. Specifically, had anyone else lost 10 games in a row over the course of a single season and finished with a winning record?

The answer, at least going back to 1980 (as far as I ventured due to time constraints; might be fun to look back even further at some point), is yes but not often. And such teams almost never reach the postseason. The last team to do so was the 1982 Atlanta Braves.

Here, decade by decade, is a quick look at the teams of the past 30 years that suffered long losing streaks within a season and yet still managed to finish with a winning record.

The 1980s

Of the three decades we are examining, the ’80s had the fewest long losing streaks. It also saw the highest percentage of teams with such losing streaks finish with winning records, including the only playoff team and the only 90-win team.

Losing streaks {exp:list_maker}Total streaks: 29
Unique team-seasons: 27 (1989 Cincinnati Reds, 1989 Detroit Tigers each had multiple streaks)
Winning records: 5 (18.5%)
Teams that played in the postseason: 1 (3.7%)
Longest: 21 games, Baltimore Orioles, April 4 to April 28, 1988
Average record of teams: 67-86, .439 WPct (low totals due to strike-shortened ’81)
Worst record of teams: 54-107, 1988 Baltimore Orioles
Best record of teams: 91-71, 1987 Milwaukee Brewers
Most represented: Detroit Tigers (4 times) {/exp:list_maker}Winning teams

1981 Detroit Tigers

Final record: 60-49
Streak: April 19 to April 29 (10 games)
Record before streak: 7-1
Record after streak: 53-38

The ’81 Tigers came out of the gate strong before their streak hit. After losing 10 straight (including six to the Yankees), Detroit halted the skid with a 2-0 victory at Seattle on a two-hitter by Dave Rozema en route to a 24-15 run leading up to the strike. The Tigers were in fourth place in the American League East when play stopped, 3.5 games behind the division-leading Yankees.

When the season resumed in August, the Tigers picked up right where they left off, compiling a 29-23 record in the second half. That tied them with the Boston Red Sox for second place in the AL East, behind the Milwaukee Brewers, and just shy of a playoff spot.

1982 Atlanta Braves

Final record: 89-73
Streak: Aug. 3-Aug. 13 (11 games)
Record before streak: 62-41
Record after streak: 27-21

On Aug. 2, the Joe Torre-led Braves held a commanding seven-game lead in the National League West over second place San Diego. After dropping their 11th straight contest less than two weeks later, they found themselves in second place, 2.5 back of the Los Angeles Dodgers. For the Braves, this was part of a 2-19 run that spanned from July 30 to Aug. 18 and saw them lose 14.5 games in the standings.

The Braves managed to get back on track and go 27-21 after their 11-game streak, reclaiming a share of the lead on Aug. 23 and pushing ahead of the Dodgers (who went 22-23 over that same stretch) for good on Sept. 28. Atlanta reached the playoffs, being the last team to do so despite suffering such a long losing streak during the regular season. The Braves then bowed out in three games to a St. Louis Cardinals club that went on to win the World Series.

1982 Detroit Tigers

Final record: 83-79
Streak: June 13 to June 23 (10 games)
Record before streak: 36-19
Record after streak: 47-50

Another year, another long losing streak from a pretty good Tigers team—perhaps giving a hint at things to come in 1984. This club got off to a blistering start and was tied with the Red Sox atop the AL East on June 12. The Tigers had the best winning percentage in baseball when their streak began. By the time it ended, they were tied with Milwaukee for second place in the division, a full five games back of Boston.

The Tigers held their own the rest of the way but never regained the form that had pushed them to the front of the pack prior to their losing streak. They finished in fourth place, 12 games back of the Brewers, who went on a second-half tear that took them to the World Series, where they lost in seven to St. Louis.

The Tigers, meanwhile, proceeded to win 92 games the following year and 104 the year after that en route to their first title since ’68. They would average better than 92 wins from 1983 to 1988 and establish themselves—at least for a while—as one of the AL’s powerhouse franchises.

1983 Milwaukee Brewers

Final record: 87-75
Streak: Sept. 9-19 (10 games)
Record before streak: 79-61
Record after streak: 8-4

Here’s our first September slump. You might think this one affected the Brewers’ seasonal outcome, but not really. They last saw first place on Aug. 25, when they held a half-game lead over second place Baltimore. By the time the streak arrived, the Orioles had shot past everyone and Milwaukee now found itself in a third place tie, five games out of first. When the streak finally ended, the Brewers had fallen 14 games back in a tough AL East that saw five teams finish with 87 wins or better.

1987 Milwaukee Brewers

Final record: 91-71
Streak: May 3-19 (12 games)
Record before streak: 20-3
Record after streak: 71-56

Talk about your strange teams. The ’87 Brewers got off to an ’84 Tigers type start, then dropped 12 games in a row (the longest streak among our winning teams) before returning to respectability. It’s not much of a stretch to think that Milwaukee could have won 100 games that year; their winning percentage outside of the streak was .606 (the Tigers finished with the AL’s best record, 98-64, a .605 clip).

On entering their tailspin, the Brewers held a five-game lead over the second-place Yankees. By the end of the streak, Milwaukee had slipped to third place, three games back of New York. Although Tom Trebelhorn’s team played well the rest of the way, the hole it had dug was too deep to climb. The Brewers would have to settle for a third-place finish, seven games behind Detroit.

The 1990s

The ’90s saw more double-digit losing streaks than the ’80s and fewer teams able to overcome them. The Tigers make another appearance, as do the two teams from Texas.

Losing streaks {exp:list_maker}Total streaks: 34
Unique team-seasons: 32 (1996 Tigers, 1998 Florida Marlins each had multiple streaks)
Winning records: 3 (9.4%)
Teams that played in the postseason: 0 (0%)
Longest: 14 games, Seattle Mariners, Sept. 2-18, 1992; Milwaukee Brewers, May 11-25, 1994
Average record of teams: 67-85, .439 WPct (low totals due to strike-shortened ’94 and ’95)
Worst record of teams: 53-109, 1996 Detroit Tigers
Best record of teams: 76-68, 1995 Houston Astros
Most represented: Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, Florida Marlins (three times) {/exp:list_maker}Winning teams

1993 Detroit Tigers

Final record: 85-77
Streak: June 22-July 1 (10 games)
Record before streak: 43-25
Record after streak: 42-42

On June 20, after John Doherty shut down the Brewers, Detroit led the AL East by two games over the Blue Jays. The Tigers maintained at least a share of their lead four games into the streak. By the end of their skid, they had slipped to third place, 4.5 back of Toronto. The Tigers clawed their way back to within a half-game of first and held that position as late as July 18, after 92 games had been played. From that point forward, however, the Blue Jays went 44-25 en route to their first World Championship.

The Tigers, meanwhile, got to settle for a third place tie with Baltimore and 85 wins. It may not have seemed like much at the time, especially with the powerhouse teams of the mid- to late-’80s still fresh in fans’ minds, but Detroit wouldn’t see another winning baseball team until 2006.

1995 Texas Rangers

Final record: 74-70
Streak: July 17 to July 26 (10 games)
Record before streak: 42-31
Record after streak: 32-29

I find it interesting, if not terribly meaningful, that two of the three teams to meet our criteria in the ’90s called Texas home and accomplished the feat during the same strike-shortened season. The Rangers, on the eve of their streak, were in second place, one game back of the front-running Angels. At its conclusion, the Rangers remained in second, but now found themselves eight games out of the top spot. Texas finished the season in third place, 4.5 games behind the AL West champion Mariners, who managed to overtake the Angels in one of the most spectacular late-season collapses ever.

The Rangers would go on to win 90 games in 1996, securing the first playoff berth in franchise history. They lost in the divisional series, as they did in two of the next three years, but under the late Johnny Oates, Texas had laid the seeds in ’95 for a moderately successful run toward the end of the millennium.

1995 Houston Astros

Final record: 76-68
Streak: Aug. 17-28 (11 games)
Record before streak: 57-45
Record after streak: 19-12

On Aug. 16, the Astros found themselves in second place, 6 games behind NL Central leading Cincinnati. Less than two weeks later, the gap had widened to 14.5 games. The Astros finished strong and ended up nine games out of first.

They had a chance at the wild card and were in strong position at the streak’s outset, holding a 3.5-game advantage over the Colorado Rockies. Unfortunately, Houston let that slip away and couldn’t quite come back in the season’s final month. The Astros ended up missing the postseason by a mere game. After falling just shy of the playoffs again the following year, the Astros embarked on a stretch where they played October baseball six out of the next nine seasons, including their first ever World Series appearance in 2005.

The 2000s

Fewer individual teams suffered through double-digit streaks. The two that appear on our list most often play in the same division (AL East), with one (Tampa Bay) becoming a model franchise toward the end of this period and the other being Peter Angelos’ personal train wreck in Baltimore.

Losing streaks {exp:list_maker}Total streaks: 38
Unique team-seasons: 34 (2002 Orioles, 2003 Tigers, 2004 Arizona Diamondbacks, 2006 Royals each had multiple streaks)
Winning records: 2 (5.9%)
Teams that played in the postseason: 0 (0%)
Longest: 19 games, Kansas City Royals, July 28 to Aug. 19, 2005
Average record of teams: 68-94, .421 WPct
Worst record of teams: 43-119, 2003 Detroit Tigers
Best record of teams: 84-78, 2009 Tampa Bay Rays
Most represented: Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays (6 times) {/exp:list_maker}Winning teams

2000 Colorado Rockies

Final record: 82-80
Streak: July 4-17 (11 games)
Record before streak: 45-33
Record after streak: 37-36

It’s the day before Independence Day and you’re tied for first place in the NL West. Life is good. Then you drop both ends of a doubleheader and keep losing for the next week and a half. Before you know it, you’ve fallen to fourth place, 5.5 games back of the division-leading Diamondbacks.

The Rockies never recovered from their tailspin. They went on to play respectable baseball, but whatever momentum they may have had going into that fateful streak disappeared for good. In fairness, they did outscore the opposition by 45 runs over those final 73 games. In a just world, this results in more than a .507 winning percentage; in the real world, it keeps the Rockies in fourth place, 15 games behind the NL West champion San Francisco Giants.

Still, this marked Colorado’s third winning record in eight seasons of existence. The Rockies wouldn’t enjoy another until 2007, when they shocked the baseball universe by going on a different kind of streak and unexpectedly ending up in the World Series.

2009 Tampa Bay Rays

Final record: 84-78
Streak: Sept. 3-13 (11 games)
Record before streak: 72-60
Record after streak: 12-7

Speaking of the World Series, here’s a team that was fresh on the heels of its first October appearance. Although the Rays had lost to Philadelphia in the 2008 Fall Classic, they followed up by demonstrating that their surprising success of a year earlier had been no fluke.

The AL East was tough that year, as it is many years later thanks to the twin empires in New York and Boston. On Sept. 2, Tampa Bay beat the Red Sox and were playing great baseball. They would have been leading the AL Central, but found themselves in third place in their division, 12.5 games back of the Yankees. By the end of the losing streak, the Rays remained in the same position, but now 19.5 games out of first place.

With four of their 11 losses coming at the hands of the Red Sox, who reached the playoffs as a wild card, it’s possible—though not likely—that the Rays could have made a late push toward the postseason if not for the streak. Instead, they had to be content with their second straight winning season. That may not sound like much, but then, that was also their second winning season period. And besides, things are looking pretty good again in Tampa this year.

References & Resources
 
Here’s some stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into the article but which you may find interesting:

Years     Teams AvgRec       NWin NWPct PS PSPct
1980-1989    27 67-86 (.439)    5  .185  1  .037
1990-1999    32 67-85 (.439)    3  .094  0  .000
2000-2009    34 68-94 (.421)    2  .059  0  .000
Total        93 67-89 (.432)   10  .108  1  .011

AvgRec = Average record of teams in sample (percentage in parentheses is simple winning percentage; there will be rounding errors)
NWin = Number of teams that finished with winning record
NWPct = Percentage of total teams in sample that finished with winning record, i.e., NWin / Teams
PS = Number of teams that went to playoffs
PSPct = Percentage of total teams in sample that went to playoffs, i.e., PS / Teams

Over the past 30 years, roughly 11 percent of teams that suffered a double-digit losing streak in a single season finished that season with a winning record. About 1 percent reached the postseason.

One other observation: The Tigers are the only team that has had multiple losing streaks of 10 games or longer in a single season in each of the past three decades. They also are the only team that managed to post a winning record in three of those seasons.

* * *

Thanks to reader Jake for posing the question that led to this line of research, Baseball-Reference for the usual awesomeness, Chris Jaffe for pointing out that this is my 100th article at Hardball Times, Dave Studeman for putting up with me long enough to publish 100 articles here, and the editors who work behind the scenes to make me look better than I am.

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Comments

  1. Jake Silver said...

    I do believe the 1951 NY Giants (yup those Giants) who lost 11 in a row are the only other team outside of the ‘82 Braves to make the Playoffs after a 10+ game losing streak.

  2. Ryan said...

    Great article, Geoff.  That ‘87 Brewers team was indeed strange, but there may be an explanation for their streak.  Looking at their page at baseball reference, it seems their losing streak coincided with a month-long injury to Paul Molitor.  They lost 12 straight from May 3-19 (not to mention 6 more straight from May 23-29) and Molitor missed all of those games.  Of course despite missing a month of action, Molitor still led the AL in runs and doubles that year.

  3. Geoff Young said...

    @Jake: That wouldn’t surprise me in the least. I wonder if other teams have at least come close? One of these days I’ll have to do some more digging.

    @John: You are correct; I’d forgotten Toronto won two years in a row.

    @Didi: Thanks, glad you enjoyed!

  4. rob yontz said...

    Thanks to TBS I watched the majority of Brave games in 1982.  Not only did they have that long August losing streak they also started the season with 13 wins.  I remember a 43 year old Phil Niekro hitting a homer in the last week of the season.

  5. Geoff Young said...

    @Ryan: Thanks for the additional insight into the Brewers’ struggles. My main memories of that team are Rob Deer and Teddy Higuera, two of my favorite players from that era… also Dale Sveum’s bizarre home run outburst in the year of the lively ball.

    I hadn’t realized that Molitor still had such a great season despite missing so much time. Then again, this is a guy whose career bore strong resemblance to those of Jorge Orta and Carney Lansford through their age 27 seasons before he kicked his game up several notches and became a Hall of Famer. Talent has a way of rising to the top.

    @Rob: I had forgotten about that 13-game winning streak to start the season. I don’t think I ever knew about Niekro’s homer; that’s not the sort of thing one forgets (like Rick Camp’s homer). Thanks for the info.

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